CIPR Corporate and Financial Group visit to Downing Street
By Kay Larsen
On a sunny morning in early April, a number of CIPR Corporate and Financial Group members gathered in Whitehall like a group of excited schoolchildren. At 11 o'clock we were ushered through the famous black door of 10 Downing Street to be welcomed by Simon Lewis, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman and director of communications, and granted a fascinating glimpse into the life of a building that has been both a family home and the setting for almost every major decision made by the UK's government over the past 280 years.
On the day we visited, the house was virtually empty. The announcement of the general election just six days earlier had triggered the immediate exodus of around 24 special government advisors, who are not permitted to conduct campaigning activities on the premises of Number 10 once the PM has named the date. Indeed, as we entered the home (for the moment, at least) of Gordon Brown, the PM was in Edgbaston launching the Labour Party manifesto.
Oliver Dodd, a member of the Downing Street front of house staff, led us along a short corridor, pointing out a small cupboard that once housed the only telephone on the premises available to journalists - a reminder of a time when the news agenda moved at a far more leisurely pace. After pausing to admire the Henry Moore statue on display nearby, we filed into the Cabinet Room and took seats around the coffin shaped table (designed, we learned, to enable the Prime Minister to see the eyes of all present).
At Tuesday cabinet meetings, Oliver explained, the PM occupies the largest chair in the room - the only one that has arms - and is flanked by his Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell and Jack Straw, the longest serving cabinet member. Directly opposite sit the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. Ted Heath, apparently a stickler for good manners, had an additional clock installed directly opposite his seat so that he wouldn't have to turn his head to check the time on the large wall-mounted clock behind him.
Next we gathered in the PM's study where we admired a piece of moon rock presented to the UK by President Richard Nixon and looked down into the garden of Number 10. A lectern in the corner of the room hinted at intensive rehearsals for the first of the live televised leaders' debates. The day-to-day business of the PM is conducted in another part of the building altogether, however. In fact, Number 10 Downing Street is three buildings - numbers 10, 11 and 12 - knocked through to create a warren of corridors and staircases. Gordon Brown works from a room in number 12, where the desks are set up in a U-shaped newsroom-style formation, inspired by a visit to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office in New York.
From the study, we moved on to a suite of three grand rooms used for entertaining visiting heads of state and there Simon joined us for coffee. As we stood amongst the antique furniture, admiring the Gainsboroughs, Constables and Turners, Simon, who is a former Chairman of the CIPR Corporate and Financial Group, explained some of the pressures and rewards that come with the title "Prime Minister's Official Spokesman".
The main challenge of his current role, he said, is that the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman is always on the record. When Parliament is sitting, Simon's duties involve a twice daily lobby briefing and a note is produced after each, recording every word he utters for posterity. He also runs a communications operation that includes a head of news, a digital media team, a strategic communications unit, a team dedicated to handling incoming correspondence to Number 10 and an events team.
As well as briefing the lobby, Simon's role involves extensive travel with the PM and he flagged several recent visits to Afghanistan as real highlights of the job, along with the gathering of heads of state at the Copenhagen climate change summit.
Simon's working day starts at around 6 am when he begins the task of reading every newspaper from cover to cover to ensure he is abreast of any article that might prompt questions by the PM. The political news agenda is still largely driven by the print media, he observed, despite the increasing prominence of bloggers on the political scene.
Life in Downing Street is made up of many elements, however, and Simon also spoke of charming moments when the PM's boys run through the house playing hide and seek or looking for Daddy - a constant reminder that the building is both a centre of power and a family home. Indeed, the famous Number 10 garden currently contains a trampoline and a play house that are surely not intended for use by the PM.
The tour concluded with the room used for state dinners and the PM's monthly press briefings. Tony Blair, we learned, always asked for a cup of tea to be handed to him 15 minutes before his briefings were due to end, so that he knew when to start winding things up. Then we filed back down the famous yellow-walled staircase, past portraits of all Number 10's previous inhabitants, and back on to the street for perhaps the most important part of the visit - a photo opportunity on the steps of 10 Downing Street.
On behalf of all who attended, I would like to say a huge thank you to Simon Lewis and Caroline Cecil for organizing and facilitating this unique access to the house of the Prime Minister and the heart of the UK government - it was an experience I am sure we will all dine out on for many years to come.
Kay Larsen is a consultant at Powerscourt, a strategic communications consultancy with specialist expertise in reputation management and financial and corporate PR.